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The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 68, No. 4 (November) 2009: 12151230.

The Association for Asian Studies, Inc., 2009 doi:10.1017/S0021911809990726

Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits,

and Southeast Asia


Clifford Geertz (19262006), both anthropology and

Asian studies lost one of their most prominent, influential, and wide-
ranging figures, as many obituaries and retrospective assessments of his life
and work have noted (see, e.g., the unusually thoughtful and balanced one by
Sherry Ortner, 2007). For more than forty years, Geertzs books and articles
had a profound impact on his own discipline and on many neighboring ones,
and though he dealt at length with other parts of the world, from Morocco
(the subject of some of his fieldwork) to the United States (he sometimes
turned his gaze to the rituals of his own culture), he often wrote about Southeast
Asia, and Indonesia in particular. In terms of topics, he made major contributions
to general debates on how to study history and culture, and to more specific dis-
cussions of issues such as the path that Islam took into and through individual
Given the wide range of subjects about which Geertz wrote, both within and
beyond the context of Southeast Asia (the main region that will concern me here),
it would be impossible to try, in a short essay, to give an overview of his work.
Instead, the aim of this essay is simply to offer a set of short soundings (exam-
inations of specific themes), in which I draw attention to particular concerns that
informed his work over the years. My hope is that by proceeding in this fragmen-
tary way, I will be able to give some sense of the depth and breadth of Geertzs
intellectual curiosity and how it related to a highly variable set of theoretical sub-
jectsa set that changed over time. I do, though, want to stress three broad
trends relating to his career as a whole. First, over the course of his decades of
scholarly writing, Geertz became more relativistic and particularistic in his
approach. Second, he became increasingly convinced over time that it was critical
to approach the study of cultures in semiotic termsthat is, as semiotic systems
and that unraveling these systems (what he sometimes referred to as the webs
of significance that collectivities together wove) required close attention to
symbols in general and language in particular. Third, his method is perhaps best
understood as one rooted in the desire to create multifaceted cultural portraits,

Aram A. Yengoyan ( is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of

California, Davis.
1216 Aram A. Yengoyan

evocations of how communities operated and how individuals within those groups
made sense of their worldan approach that shared certain affinities with the
work of Franz Boas and even more so with Ruth Benedict, whose books Patterns
of Culture (1934) and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) influenced him,
but made more room for change over time within cultures and stressed the need to
think more in terms of cultures (lowercase and multiple) than Culture (capita-
lized and singular).


In Geertzs work, the distinction between ideology and culture comes in

many forms. What I think is critical is that Geertz perceived Bali as more cultu-
rally homogeneous in comparison to Java, which he portrayed as more diverse
and heterogeneous. This difference is what I would call ballast. In the Balinese
context, the symbolic structures and ethos are viewed as ballast in that they
seldom are utilized as a sense of power and control over various segments of
society. On the other side, the cultural systems in Java are always expressions
of the political and social dynamics and the kinds of stratifications that exist.
One may suspect that Geertz might have seen himself as making extensive use
of the concept of ethos, but he differentiated it by abangan, santri, and
priyayi. Thus, rather than culture versus ideology, what we have is a portrait of
Java that is far more post-traditional, emphasizing the contestation among
and between rival varieties of Javanese culture and religion. His model of Bali
was, relatively speaking, far more conventional and unitary. Issues such as
these have shed light not only on Indonesia, but also on the relationship of reli-
gion, politics, and society throughout Asia. In this sense, the scholarship of both
Clifford and Hildred Geertz and of others has resulted in a critical understanding
of the cultural and political profiles in which the nation-state is expressed.
Along these lines, Southeast Asia is the most difficult to generalize because it
does not possess that sense of perceived historical, cultural, or geographic conti-
nuity and unity that one finds in Japan, Korea, and China, and to a lesser degree
in South Asia.
As one would expect, the critiques of Geertzs work have come from different
disciplines, and often without reference to Southeast Asia. One might look at
Talal Asads (1983) critique of Geertzs understanding of religion, or Dale
F. Eickelmans (2005) review of Geertzs interpretation of Moroccan Islam.
The culture and ideology issue is dealt with theoretically by Dominick
LaCapra (1988), and Richard A. Shweder (2007) offers a nuanced perspective
on Geertzs thoughts on culture, relativism, and the social sciences. Within the
context of Southeast Asia, in an essay that both deals with and goes much
beyond Geertz, John R. Bowen (1995) provides an excellent summary of anthro-
pological approaches and writings as they interconnect with the other social
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1217

sciences. Of interest and importance to the matter of Islam, it may be noted that
Bowen also edited a symposium titled Scripture and Society in Modern Muslim
Asia (1993) that compares textual traditions and analysis from South Asia to
Southeast Asia.


With this as a general introduction to Geertzs work and writings on Southeast

Asia and beyond, let me explore a few issues in some depth. I should be careful to
point out that Geertzs ideas did change over time, and initially they might be
viewed as a partial reflection of the period in which he was working. Clearly,
though, the German Romantic influence was always critical to his understanding
of cultures, religions, and meanings, just as it was the basis for his sense of rela-
tivism and historicism, essential to showing how change occurs and why. In his
rejection of universalist theories such as Marxism, Freudianism, and structural-
ism, and of social anthropological versions of society, Geertz treated the idea
of culture in terms of its particularisms and the ways in which humans differ in
so many directions from one another. In many of his early general essays,
Geertz asks a critical question, namely, why and how humans have invested so
much in the particular. As one might suspect of all species, this is a very basic
feature of Homo sapiens, and it is evident in the existence of cultures in the
plural, but more so in the marked differences of the vast linguistic diversity
that characterizes our species. Overall, Geertzs approach is not a denial of the
real existence of the world, but a means of getting at what is in the world.
Within that approach, culture, the self, and reflexive consciousness are crucial
to the reconstitution of the world. The anthropologists task, then, is to explore
cultural being. For a Balinese, being is religious; thus the anthropologists aim
is the discovery and understanding of the features or principles that order and
define the world for Balinese.
At various times, Geertzs work has been critiqued for its explanatory reach.
Explanation as a mode of scholarship is best found in his Agricultural Involution
(1963a), but beginning in the 1960s, his writings moved in essentially humanistic
directionsthus, the interest in explanation became almost mute. This, of
course, should not be surprising, as Geertzs anthropology was highly influenced
by the German tradition through Boas and Benedict. Within this tradition,
description and explanation are essentially compounded. Thus, explanation was
based solely on the depth and detail of the description. Description that was
detailed, heavily documented, and ethnographically rigorous stood as the expla-
nation. In short, culture is there, and it describes and explains itself.
Some writers have argued that Geertz gave up on social science explanations
in favor of what might be called a cultural explanation. In many ways, Geertz
seemed to believe that his analyses were as explanatory and scientific as what
1218 Aram A. Yengoyan

is normally found throughout the social sciences. But for Geertz, the real
difference is that he recognized the cultural contingency of his own position,
whereas in the social sciences, one might not. Overall, I think it is fair to
suggest that Geertz might not have quite resolved the relationship between
explanation and interpretation. When pushedwhich he washe tended to
see them not as opposed, but as premised on different criteria of critical
Next, I wish to develop some of the general features of Geertzs writings on
Indonesia and ask to what extent they have had a bearing on similar historical and
anthropological developments in South and East Asia. My concern is a more
detailed discussion and analysis of Geertzs writings on Islam and religion in Indo-
nesia, his understanding of Bali, Dutch structural anthropology and its impli-
cations, how comparison(s) entered his work in Southeast Asia, and the mutual
convergence of culture and history both within the nation-state and within aca-
demic exchange. In passing, we may note Geertzs early but everlasting work
on agriculture, regional economies, and market economics.


In work reaching from West Africa, East Africa, and Morocco to Iran, South
Asia, and Southeast Asia, Islam has been portrayed in many forms and in many
variants. Characterizations include Islam as an anticolonial religion, Islam as a tra-
velers religion, and Islam as a traders religion. Such vignettes are a kind of
Western Orientalistic writing, here meaning a quick and handy way of covering
the internal characteristics and variants in dogma and practice that are critical
to and within Islam. Such accounts have had a persistent influence on Western
writings on Islam. Marshall G. S. Hodgson deals with many of these portraits
in his three volumes on The Venture of Islam (1974). One must place Hodgson
squarely outside the Orientalist camp, and, notwithstanding his critique of
Geertz, he is much closer to Geertz in spirit. In particular, his concern is not
to boil down Islam to certain essences, as do some variants of Orientalism, but,
like Geertz, to demonstrate its intrinsic richness and internal variation.
In Southeast Asian studies as well as other areas in the 1950s and early 1960s,
much of the writing on Islam by social scientists was cast in the mode of develop-
ment and modernity, especially in dealing with new nations in what was labeled the
third world. Islam in many book titles was cast as a dependent variable, such that
one finds titles such as Education and Islam, Economic Development or Politi-
cal Development and Islam, and so on. In this sense, Islam never enjoyed primary
consideration or treatment; it was seen as an ancillary social force or phenomenon.
Of course, the parallel upshot in a period of heavy Orientalism was that Islam in
India and China came in for comparative neglect in light of the emphases in
those regions on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and the like.
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1219

To a much lesser degree, one also finds some of this kind of thinking in
Geertzs very early work, but he never treats Islam as a minor or secondary
force. His initial work on Islama major work that even many of his critics
have applauded, its flaws notwithstanding, as one of the best ethnographies of
Islam in Asia ever writtenis The Religion of Java, published in 1960, which
was primarily neo-Weberian (with the influence of Talcott Parson on him as
strong as that of Emile Durkheim, notably in the way in which Geertz empha-
sized the need to integrate society and culture). The basic focus is not on reli-
gion per se but on the social structure and social organization of Islamnamely,
the kinds of social groupings and classes and how they interpret Islam. The reli-
gious variations are cast as subtraditionsabangan, santri, and priyayi variants
and the focus is on how Islamic strictures are reworked in terms of dogma and the
ensuing system of belief. The Religion of Java appeared at a critical juncture. Cri-
tiques of the volume basically came from a number of directions. Initially it was
Hodgsons (1974, 2:551) critique, which notes that Geertzs version of the religion
is based on Sharia-minded Muslims who are basically modernists, thus relegating
the other groups to a vague combination of Hindu-Buddhism or folkish tradition-
alism. For Hodgson, Sufism is critical to understanding why Islam was adopted in
Java and to appreciating the richness of Javanese culture. Unlike Geertz,
Hodgson is clear that the Hindu-Buddhist remnants did not last long in Java,
and he insists that Islam spread throughout all layers of Javanese society. This
is a critical point about Islam in Java, which I find convincing.
Geertzs work points to the critical interplay between knowledge and power
in Islam, and in all world religions for that matter, and it has been inspirational for
a younger cohort of scholars in debating such issues. In a few cases, such as the
writings of Mark R. Woodward (1989), the critique has gone even further by
developing the critical role of hadith in Javanese Islam. Another point that is
emphasized by Woodward is that the court rituals so central to the priyayi life
were not Hindu-Buddhist, but primarily derived from Persianate models of king-
ship that had made their way to Southeast Asia from India. Anthony Milner
(1995) also echoes the importance of this point in the Malay context. Hodgson
and these younger critics claim that Geertz applied an overly modernist and
reformist vision in interpreting Javanese Islam. In this sense, Geertzs early short-
comings reflect the modernization framework that dominated the social sciences
of the 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1960s, Geertz, in his Islam Observed
(1968), was moving toward a more cultural/Benedictian position as well as a narra-
tivized approach to both the study of Islam and culture more broadly. Ultimately,
Geertz realized the limits of The Religion of Java, and in 2005, he noted that his
work on Islam needed to be coupled with textually oriented studies of Quranic,
hadith, and Sharia traditions, especially if we wish to grasp the role of scripturalism
in nationalist politics (Shweder and Good 2005, 71, 117).
The anthropological work on Islam in Indonesia has now created a gener-
ation of scholars who are able to textually work the issues from Sharia to the
1220 Aram A. Yengoyan

abangan tradition, covering what Geertz envisioned in the 1960s. We are all in
debt to Geertzs pioneering work. It should be emphasized that in the 1980s
and 1990s, the efflorescence of anthropological and historical literature on
Islam in diverse settings led to a far more refined sense of the commonalities
and differences across different subtraditions of Islam. Anthropologists have
now provided a more deeper and clearer sense of Islam in local contexts than
what Geertz achieved, in part because the comparative materials were not yet
available to him. They have also linked variations in Islam to the study of
textual and legal traditions found across vast expanses of the Muslim world.


Whereas the work in Java directed Geertz toward a number of global and
broad concerns, his work with Hildred Geertz on Bali moved in other directions
and spurred other types of intellectual discourse, some of which will never have
any closure. Bali, like a few other places that anthropologists have worked in, has
long fascinated not only social scientists but also students of religion and the
humanities in general. At one time, a common joke among anthropologists was
that every Navajo household was composed of a husband, wife, children, and
one anthropologist. Surely if the Navajo are the most overstudied society on
record, the Balinese might be a close second.
The anthropological infatuation with Balinese aesthetics, social structures,
and philosophical developments has vacillated between interpreting Balinese
life within itself and with respect to philosophy and caste-like social structures
as they existed in India. James A. Boon (1977, 1982, 1999) has brilliantly
caught and conveyed the nuanced and overt types of internal and external inter-
ests through which Bali has been envisioned back to the 1800s. The fascination
and strangeness of Bali appear in travelers accounts and Indic scholarship, which
saw Bali primarily as an aesthetic outpost within the dominance of Islam through-
out the archipelago. Dutch scholarship on Bali had its roots in the nineteenth
century and a richly overarching philosophical tradition. Not only did this scholar-
ship stress the Indic ties, it also saw Bali as the opposition to the hegemony of Java
as the only inner island that was not Islamic. Again in this context, Java and
Islam are equated, but Bali is linked to ancient India and the Hindic traditions
that dominated the phenomena of rank, hierarchy, and complexity.
Clifford and Hildred Geertz started their fieldwork in Bali in the 1960s
against this backdrop. They continued publishing their research for four more
decades. Many of the works are coauthored, and at the same time, each of
them worked on different topics. Hildred Geertz wrote a superb volume on
the Javanese family, and most of her efforts on Bali extended to art and the phi-
losophical tradition (H. Geertz, 1991, 1994, 2004; Geertz and Geertz 1964, 1975;
Geertz and Togog 2005). In many ways, the inspiration for their work stemmed
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1221

from the fieldwork and writings in the 1930s of Miguel Covarrubias, Jane Belo,
Colin McPhee, Gregory Bateson, and Margaret Mead, all of whom were and still
are foundational to Bali fieldworkers in their own way.
By the time the Balinese work started, the Weberian influence that was so
pronounced in Geertzs The Religion of Java was no longer that critical, and
what developed was the full flowering of what has been referred to as cultural
portraits la Ruth Benedict. Throughout the years and decades of writing on
Bali, Geertz was fully aware of the Dutch scholarship from both the early and
the contemporary periods. The reason I mention this is that many writers on
Bali and Indonesia have felt that Geertz did not cite all of the relevant work.
This attitude simply is not warranted. Geertz seldom peppered his writings
with endless references that would have had little or no bearing on the subject
matter at hand, however much they might interest or fulfill the expectations of
another writer. It is clear that Geertz was heavily influenced by the Dutch writ-
ings on Bali. He read them thoroughly, as he did the French and German
sources, and he cited them in an exacting manner.
The differences that some Dutch scholars have had with Geertz, and vice
versa, turn on issues that I will explore later in this essay. In many ways, their find-
ings, developments, and interpretations run in parallel paths that might have
implications for one side or another. The Dutch saw the problem of interpreting
Bali as one form of structuralism, whereas for Geertz, the issues were primarily
cultural. One of the critical cultural expressions in the Balinese writings, both in
the Geertzes work and in the Dutch scholarship, is an understanding of the
forms of internal complexity that run throughout Balinese social structure as
well as traditions in dance, drama, theater, oral traditions, and other aesthetic
expressions. Much of Geertzs discussion focuses on these themes, and the
weight of his ethnographic findings support it just as the Dutch sources do
from the 1940s onward and prior to that era.


Geertzs thinking on complexity and involution, which would become very

influential over time, was shaped profoundly by earlier work on these subjects
by Alexander A. Goldenweiser, especially a 1936 essay that Geertz cites with
approval in Agricultural Involution. The connections between Goldenweisers
theory and Agricultural Involution are clear. As far as it can be determined,
none of the works that Geertz published on Bali ever mention Goldenweiser,
whose work might have made the best case for how complexity developed in
Bali. In brief, the question that Goldenweiser pursues is how complexity takes
form, and how increasing complexity may not result in qualitative transform-
ations or innovations. Goldenweiser notes and stresses that the dominance of a
particular pattern takes hold, and any further changes work inward to draw
1222 Aram A. Yengoyan

forth greater and greater internal complexity without transformations that are
qualitatively different and might have no bearing on their origins. In his analysis,
Goldenweiser draws examples from the ornateness in late Gothic art by noting
that the basic form of art has reached a finality and that its structural features
are established only as variations. Originality as invention is exhausted. Elabor-
ation continues without inventive transformations. Another apt example in Gold-
enweiser is his discussion of how fugues are ornately and particularly developed
in Johann Sebastian Bachs compositions. There is in Bach a deliberate limitation
on invention, and thus the melodic elements are repeated, combined, and recom-
bined, and the result is a highly complex musical texture; so complex, in fact, as
frequently to confuse the ear, unless unusually musical or experienced. This
feature stands out in bald relief especially when compared, say, with Beethoven,
where elaboration or combination of basic melodic elements is not abandoned
but supplemented by continued melodic invention. The resulting effect is rela-
tive simplicity and freshness (1936, 104).
The internal complexity of Bali was pivotal for both the Dutch scholarship
and the writings of the Geertzes. The theme of stasis and its paramount quality
appear in virtually all of their descriptions. Stasis is not stationaryit works
back on itself. Stasis in Bali is there and pervades most of the social and aes-
thetic life, and it simply cannot be reduced to any single factor. A fine example
of involution in Balinese society is teknonymy, and the Geertzes (1964, 1975)
show how it works throughout the fabric of Balinese society. Teknonymy, which
is a system of naming children either by birth order or by reference to kin in
the generation before or after, is not found in many societies, and when it is, it
is usually in small-scale societies, though it has been documented in different
areas of Chinese kinship and social organization. In these cases, teknonymy
appears confined to a narrow domain of kinship. In contrast, Balinese tekno-
nymy runs throughout the entire society, both in terms of horizontal connec-
tions and vertical hierarchical ties that embed status, rank, and property
arrangements, not only between individuals but also from village to village
and from region to region. It pervades lineages and other kin groups (with
their religious, economic, and political dimensions), and also creates new
ones. It is no wonder that the Geertzes understand teknonymy as a cultural
paradigm that not only creates ongoing complexities but also establishes new
cultural connections bearing its stamp. Yet it is puzzling that the Geertzes
make no reference to Goldenweiser, whose piece on involution would have
been especially helpful. Teknonymy in all of its various permutations in Bali
creates a late Gothic art style, but one in which ethnographerswhether be
they Dutch, the Geertzes, or otherscan describe as occurring as part of
the present. It should be noted that involution is hardly a common matter.
But perhaps one might find parallels between Bali and Indic aesthetics and
philosophy, both of which promote and endure ongoing processes of internal
complexity without qualitative transformations.
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1223

In Negara (1980) and the whole conception of the state and what Geertz calls
the theater state in nineteenth-century Bali, he is basically arguing against
Western concepts of power and how power is deployed throughout the state.
In this sense, he draws parallels to accounts of early state formation in medieval
Europe by utilizing the works of Ernst H. Kantorowicz (1957) and Ralph
E. Giesey (1960). In passing, both Kantorowicz and Giesey are relegated to
the section on notes, but if one knows these two works, it is evident that the
idea of the kings two bodies and its development in medieval ideas of power
and funerary ceremonies serves as the basic inspiration for Geertzs notion of
the development of the Balinese theater state. In other words, Geertz took his
centerperiphery model from medieval European patterns of theological
power and interpreted it within the context of the Balinese symbolism. Yet one
can read Negara as a form of critique, not only in terms of Bali but also in
terms of how anthropologists have used and misused the idea of power as a pol-
itical process. My only qualification to the foregoing would be to hedge on my use
of the term Western concepts of power. Geertz in the late 1970s was part of a
broader shift in Western scholarship, particularly in history and anthropology,
whereby our very concept of power was incorporating a far more nuanced and
cultural-constructionist model of politics. In this, one might say, Geertz was
both responding to new currents in political theory and trying to point out that
he and at least some other anthropologists and even sociologists (such as
Edward Shils) in the 1950s and 1960s had anticipated the turn to a concept of
power/politics interpenetrated by its cultural constructions.


Dutch structuralism and its anthropological interpretation of Indonesia were

always a problem for Geertz. He was never theoretically inclined toward Dutch
structuralism. In part, this was because of his move away from generalized or
nomothetic theory in the late 1960s. His feelings were most negative on theories
that were globally based, evidenced by his dismissal of French structuralism, and
especially Lvi-Strauss. To a great extent, his negative 1967 piece on Lvi-Strauss
is the basis of what he thought about the whole enterprise. Within this context, he
had little interest in what he felt was a rewriting of Lvi-Strauss as the intellectual
foundation for and within the anthropology of Indonesia. The writings by P. E. de
Josselin de Jong on Lvi-Strauss and Marcel Mauss, and his 1951 volume titled
Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan: Socio-Political Structure in Indonesia, with
its focus on symmetrical and asymmetrical connubia as a general overarching fra-
mework, would have been anathema to Geertz. For the Dutch scholars, structur-
alism began with the investigation of dualistic principles, especially in the islands
of outer Indonesia, and that was of little interest to Geertz. Further still, many
Dutch writers viewed these islands and societies as primarily Austronesian
1224 Aram A. Yengoyan

societies, and not Indonesian societies. Within this framework, each study of each
society is a study of dualism, and thus there is hardly any mention of Indonesia as
a nation. Geertz was well aware of the Dutch scholarship, but was he disinter-
ested by the emphasis that both the ethnographic and the historical material
placed on verifying a theory of dualistic structures.
The issue of how the Dutch scholarship related to Islam is a tough one to
unravel. Under Dutch rule, the research areas (which might have covaried
with administrative regions) were identified as a set number of areas based on
adat law. Eventually, adat law became critical for the concern regarding the
kind of fieldwork and other research that was to be done. Surely the Dutch scho-
larship on Islam has a long and creative path, but one still hears that under Dutch
rule, the denial of Indonesia by adat law areas was a way to keep Islam out of
the total cultural scene. This simply was not the case, but from to time to time it is
still expressed, and as far as I know, Geertz never made such a claim or statement.
Overall, the scholarship on Islam is very textual in terms of the various aspects of
Islamic law. The Dutch scholarship on Islam within Indonesia and adjacent
Muslim areas is best exemplified by the papers in a volume edited by
M. B. Hooker (1983). Hookers volume on Islam must be read alongside what
Geertz and other scholars have published within the Indonesian context.
I should like to point out that the piece by Roy F. Ellen (1983) in the Hooker
volume is a superb analysis of another side of Islam, what Ellen calls practical
Islam. This work should be read in conjunction with Geertzs writings on both
Indonesian and Moroccan Islam.


Geertzs writings on history and anthropology and their relationship to one

another addressed critical debates in the humanities and social sciences. By
the 1970s, many fields in the humanities had turned to anthropology and the
idea of culture as it related to language, comparative literature, philosophy,
and eventually fields such as cultural studies, critical theory, postcolonial
studies, and gender studies. Philosophy and linguistics as part of the humanities
also brought forth some interest in the culture concept and how systems of
meaning were a part of various discourses. At the same time, some of the
social sciences found intellectual and theoretical connections with what was hap-
pening in the biological sciences, in models of rational choice theories and of per-
sonal and group maximization. It was a time of what Geertz called blurred
genres. The interest in anthropology among scholars in the humanities was pri-
marily directed toward understanding how anthropological theories and frames
of analysis could provide new interpretations and insights into older issues in
the humanities, especially in the fields of literature, comparative literature, and
languages. Thus, Lvi-Straussian structuralism, Marxism, cultural Marxism,
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1225

cultural analysis through Geertz or David Schneider, symbolic approaches, the-

ories of interpretation, ethnography and thick description, and componential
analysis all became a part of the anthropological export trafficked to the
Geertzs (1990) own interest is clearly set forth in how he relates various
forms of the historical endeavor to cultural anthropology. As he notes, anthropol-
ogy and history dwell and vacillate on the issue of time and space, on the big and
the little. He points out that, historically, anthropology has had an obsession with
the little and with perspectives from the bottom upward, and thus the size of our
efforts might appear small. This, of course, is evident when one compares Bali
with certain historical works on medieval and Renaissance Europe, works that
deal with royalty, royal cremations and funerary practices, and the creative
aspects of kingship. But in terms of borrowing, some historians have moved
from the big to the little and back again, as exemplified by Robert Darntons
(1984) writing on the Great Cat Massacre in France. In that work, we see
echoes of what Geertz did with the cockfight and how he read Balinese
culture from particular events. Darnton and Geertz occasionally taught an under-
graduate seminar at Princeton University.
The connection and devotion to history on the part of Geertzian anthropol-
ogy is that history is essentially relativistic, or at least the most relativistic of the
humanities, and possibly more so than most aspects of social anthropology.
Furthermore, history, as he saw it in its various forms of significance and
interpretation, is based on empiricism, and not embedded or based on abstrac-
tions or on theories that Geertz (1990) labels bootless. He goes a little
further: Anthropology gets the tableau, History gets the drama; Anthropology
the forms, History the causes.
However, the issue of interpreting Geertz in a straightforward manner as a
relativist is not that simple; it is neither valid nor correct. It could be argued
that he is better described as a particularist than a relativist; these are different
positions, and he labeled himself not as a relativist but as an anti-anti-relativist,
which is not the same thing.
Textual tactics allow anthropologists and historians to move from the local
and the marginal to broad issues, such as how the power of meaning is created
through the panorama of medieval political theology. Within this operation,
the role of symbolic forms and forces is critical to understanding Bali as a cultural
portrait, and the parallel with medieval European divine kingship and funerary
cremation is but one of tacking back and forth. Anthropologists seek to find
out how things fit together, historians venture into how things are brought forth.
Geertzs reading of and adherence to history had much to do with historys
relativistic foundations, but it also gave him a means of not having to address
global theories or virtually any theory in social anthropology. It must be kept in
mind that the Weberian influence and a Parsonian view of culture were hardly
global and were never meant to be universal. The only larger ism in
1226 Aram A. Yengoyan

anthropology that Geertz would accept was that of relativism, but even relativism
in the 1990s in anthropology was in trouble because it was compounded into
various versions of postmodernism. Interestingly, historians generally have read
Geertz as a highly theoretical thinker, despite his rejection of global theories
such as structuralism, Marxism, and cultural Marxism. Again, one must ponder
the ifs and whys regarding his move to history. In part, it starts early in his writ-
ings, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, theory hardly comes into his work.
And surely thick description and webs of meaning are hardly theory. As I
already have noted, Geertz also wrote with a stronger conviction that explanation
and interpretation are one and the same. On the other side, the move to history,
as in the Balinese writings, was a further departure from his work of the 1960s
and early 1970s. But it was a safe departure.


In later years, as he refined his own intellectual position, Geertz reserved

special scorn for what he called economistic explanations of social action; but
the fact is that during the years he spent at Berkeley, his writing and teaching
largely focused on economic issues. Although no one would confuse his views
even at that time with those of such fundamentalist materialists as, say, Marvin
Harris, Geertz was working during the late 1950s and early 1960s well within a
Weberian framework, examining in particular the cultureeconomy nexus and
how ideas and social organizations related to economic growth. These were the
years in which he published The Religion of Java (1960), Social Change and Mod-
ernization in Two Indonesian Towns (1962), and Peddlers and Princes (1963b),
and sent off the Agricultural Involution (1963a) manuscript, among other works.
At that time, he was concerned with such specific issues as the interaction
between occupation and religious affiliation, the organization of petty markets, cul-
tural barriers and incentives that he believed influenced the development of capit-
alism, the varied social implications of shifting field and irrigation agriculture, the
economic effects of colonialism, and the promise that such everyday institutions as
rotating credit organizations might have for the accumulation of funds that enabled
investments in larger-scale enterprise. The advanced undergraduate course in
economic anthropology that he offered in 1960 embodied a thorough review of,
and critique of, anthropological contributions to development studies; notes
for that course were passed on and highly cherished among interested Berkeley
students long after Geertz had departed Berkeley for the University of Chicago.
With that background, it is not surprising that the students whom Geertz
influenced went on to pursue research in Southeast Asia that raised similar
kinds of issues. Much of that influence was effected through a superb seminar
on social stratification in peasant societies that was held in 1960; it was led by
Geertz and Lloyd A. Fallers and attended occasionally by such on-campus
Clifford Geertz, Cultural Portraits, and Southeast Asia 1227

luminaries as Irving Goffman, Paul Wheatley, and Reinhard Bendix. Three

student members of that seminar were motivated to devote their careers primar-
ily to research in Southeast Asia: James Siegel, Henry T. Lewis, and W. G. Davis.
Siegels fieldwork was on Acehnese Islam, while Lewis and Davis both worked on
markets in the Philippines. All three have produced students of their own who
also have conducted Southeast Asian research.


Geertzs initial writings reflected the social science of his time, even or maybe
especially in his criticisms and in his effort to escape from it. This is evident in the
tendency to treat religion as a kind of background, something like the climate that
is theresomething important but without agency or dynamism. So it is
addressed, when it is, in relationship to more vital elements of societyhierar-
chy, wealth, power, social structure, and so forth. This position might characterize
Geertz in his Balinese studies and in Islam Observed. As captured in The Religion
of Java, religion is deployed in aliran and its conflicts, but it must be stressed that
this is not background, but rather the primary generative force in explaining the
internal variations of Javanese Islam. Indeed, it is partly because of the force of
aliran/religiously based sociopolitical organizations that Geertz felt that he could
confidently dismiss class as a structuring variable in Java.
But for historians of Europe since the Reformation, religion is just a vessel
that may express something arising elsewhere but causing very little in its own
right. Historians looked at religion and political alignments or social class, with
religion in effect the passive partner, as a way of congealing social interests and
differences that originated elsewhere. And that is why Webers Protestant ethic
stood out so distinctively and received such attention.
In the final analysis, it is clear that Geertz would never have accepted a pos-
ition that religion is only a mere background. The Weberian influence was always
central to his thinking. Of course, a reader might claim that Geertz was theoreti-
cal and sought vague causal explanations. This is a tough issue. What I think most
appealed to Geertz within the Weberian framework were not causal explanations,
either strong or weak, but how Weber developed the Germanic idea of elective
affinity from Kant and Goethe and applied this to the realm of social and histori-
cal analysis. A rereading of Geertz within an elective affinity understanding would
probably clarify many of the problems encountered in analyzing his works. From
this viewpoint, what the Geertzian position brought forth is almost a perverse
argument that religious belief might even effect something important. The
charge that Geertzs work was and is eclecticism is still made even to this day,
a position that I find absurd.
Historically, within the scholarship on certain regions of Asia, but not South-
east Asia, there was a very strong temptation to look for some Ur-source of
1228 Aram A. Yengoyan

cultural attitudes and behavior. The search for the Ursprung comes from German
intellectual culture history and philosophy of the 1800s onward, with the belief
that the Ursprung would unlock the secrets of whole cultures and civilizations.
Here, the major initial emphasis was on the ancient language texts, as they
could unravel what the essence of a way of life was. Ancient India and what it
meant is a case in point. This kind of search appeals to experts and area specialists
because it validates the importance of their expertise and immersion. By empha-
sizing the ineffable quality of culture, it forefends against shallow commentators
(as well as economists and political scientists) unless they, too, bow to the power
of the past, something they were usually all too glad to do in a paragraph before
turning to the present that they cared about). At the same time, this emphasis
which was also appealing to native scholarscreated and played to a stereotype
of the changeless, timeless East. In an odd way, Geertz toyed with and yet skill-
fully handled these prejudices and approaches, avoiding the traps they lay while
seeking (and laying claims to) cultural depth.


I would like to thank Robert Hefner and the Association for Asian Studies Southeast
Asia Council for inviting me to prepare this essay on Clifford Geertz. I also want to extend
my appreciation to the following individuals for assisting me through various phases of
this essay: Karen Blu, William G. Davis, Kenneth George, Raymond Grew, Robert
Hefner, Michael Lambek, Michael Peletz, and K. Vander Meer. Special thanks go to
the editorial staff of the Journal of Asian Studies.

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